Singulart explores the intersection of art and music in this exclusive interview with New Yorker Kwami Coleman: jazz pianist, composer and musicologist specializing in improvised music. His 2017 album ‘Local Music’ explores the concept of locality through jazz compositions that draw on memory and the use of field recordings from Harlem. His upcoming electronic project POLY is set to be released in 2020. We had the pleasure of speaking with Kwami and discovering his musical journey growing up in New York City, his views on the similarities between musicians and visual artists, and wise advice to any creatives navigating their artistic practice in our modern world.
Hello Kwami! Do you have a first memory of falling in love with music (or jazz in particular?)
My earliest, fondest, memory is from when I was around 4 years old in my family’s apartment in the Bronx. All of these drums were around because my father was a musician playing with a lot of bands around New York City. Around the apartment, there were bongo drums, conga drums, and records everywhere with at least one record player. I just picked up a pair of drums and started playing along to one of the records, and this became so calming for me that all of my father’s musician friends would come around and ask me to play. If they were rehearsing they’d say, “Hey, Kwami, go get on the drums man, keep a beat”- and I’m four years old. They wanted to see this little kid be cute and play, but this was also kind of my entrance into music. From today back to ancient times, that’s how you learn, through an apprenticeship system. You learn from your elders and you learn as a young child. To this day, I still play drums and my current project is a very percussion-based one. This first memory was my entry into the musician’s gild.
Who are some of your role models and influences?
One of my biggest influences has always been literature because I stayed home a lot when I was a kid, and there were some pretty specific reasons for that. The Bronx took a turn, as many neighborhoods did in the late 80s and early 90s, with the war on drugs. Before, it was a pretty quiet neighborhood close to the Bronx zoo and then things started to change, so my parents really feared danger and anything that could happen to a kid outside. In staying home, my role models were virtual: books, records and cassettes, VHS tapes of musicians in concerts and things like that. Also as a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, there were video games. Having a kind of virtual existence and being able to fabricate a new world really inspired me creatively.
As for living role models, of course there was my father. He was a pianist, composer, and arranger, so he was omnivorous that way. To be a working musician, it pays to be adaptable. My earliest piano lessons were at Carnegie Hall because my father used to work as an usher there. We got to know one of the house pianists and I think he was one of only two black pianists at Carnegie Hall in those days. I remember going to his apartment in the Carnegie towers and using some of the private practice rooms. That was when the cultural importance of music, and in particular classical music, became clear to me; walking into Carnegie Hall had this very regal sanctuary like feeling. As a kid, I didn’t know anything about the cultural importance of Carnegie Hall. All I knew is that the minute I walked in, I didn’t wanna make too much noise. It’s like you’re paying your respects and walking into a temple of sorts, and that’s exactly what it was: a temple of culture.
I’ve also been influenced by every music teacher I had, and my art teachers too. I went to LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York, and the instructor for the jazz band, Bob Stewart, is a tubaist who has played with countless musicians all around the world. That was the first time I had met a musician who was touring constantly. He would bring musicians he was working with in to class; it was the coolest thing. He would say, “Next week we are going to have Jimmy Owens in class,” and we would all be like, “JIMMY OWENS?!” If you listened to jazz recordings, these were the musicians playing on the records. I started to get into them more deeply in high school because I was trying to learn how to play the piano for myself and learn how to improvise, and people who I had heard on the records would just walk into class.
Can you talk about your experiences with classical training versus improvisation?
My father was formally trained, so for me, classical music went hand-in-hand with formal training, which is to say the school of musicianship and technique. You’re being exposed to this literature mainly from Europe from the 18th and 19th century, and to be familiar with and master that literature, you’re seen as someone who is not just musically capable, but musically literate, and therefore culturally literate too.
Especially in the 70s, my father played in jazz bands and was in circles in and around John Coltrane. That was part of his musical upbringing. He was in his 20s in the 1960s, so all the iconic musicians that we read about today were around. In the 60s you could not only go see them but, for a young musician like him, you could also hang out and study with them. My father could improvise and I would hear him practicing all these virtuosic runs and thought about where it must come from. It’s improvisation based on an understanding of harmony, and it may not even be conventional harmony, because you start to appreciate that theory is a means to a particular end. If theory doesn’t get you to where you need to be, that’s when I started to think out of the box musically through improvisation- theory can only get you so far. You need to have a pretty robust conceptual frame or approach to ultimately sound like yourself.
My mother’s side of the family is from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, so the music of the Spanish speaking Caribbean was very close to me. I was involved in all of these spheres, and on top of that, as a kid growing up in New York in the 90s and 2000s, rap was big for me. I’ve also always loved punk, but that was not music that my father understood, but more from my generation. I put my classical training in the middle of all of that, because that’s the school stuff, the stuff that counts.
Do you see any similarities between the work of a musician and the work of a visual artist?
I think music has the ability to be the most abstract of all the arts, because we are dealing with sound which is not mimetic like painting. With figurative painting, you’re representing objects and reality in a particular way. Prior to sound reproduction, you can’t say, “This is the sound of landscape.” You can get close to it, and I think of something like Beethoven’s Symphony No.6 ‘Pastoral‘, but music is inherently abstract. I think for the improvising musician and the contemporary visual artist, one of the big questions is about movement and space. I see a lot of contemporary artists, those being shown at the Whitney and at Chelsea galleries, who create installations where objects and movement have an intimate relationship with each other. They are concerned with movement even if the movement is a matter of perspective.
I think for the improvising musician and the contemporary visual artist, one of the big questions is about movement and space.
One of my favorite visual artists is Mark Rothko and I’ve always appreciated Jackson Pollock. The challenge in both Pollock and Rothko is how you view the work, what perspective one takes, and how their work is presented.With some of Pollock’s work from the mid-50s, there is no one right way to hang it, so it invites the viewer to not stay static. You have to walk up to it, tilt your head, look at it from an angle- it creates a space for people to move around and get different perspectives. Similar to the improvising musician, some of the musicians I’m interested in created a musical architecture for sound to move through, so that both the performer and the listener can move through the piece in a particular way.
Do you have any other favorite artists?
Can you tell me the story behind your album cover for Local Music?
It was advice given to me by a musician who I very much admire, the saxophonist and composer named Yosvany Terry. I’d been sketching out little motifs and chord progressions for a little while for the album, and had settled on a theme of the sounds of my neighborhood which is when I started going around making field recordings. I went to Yosvany and I said, “I think I have an album here. I’m gonna put it out independently, but what should I do about the cover?” He has recorded with so many people, and really is a top of the top musician, and he said, “Well since it’s your first album under your own name, you have to put your face on it.”
So I reached out to my friend from high school named Philippe Previl, a visual artist who now lives in Los Angeles, and I commissioned a painting for the cover. I told him what the album was about, and he came back with a sketch that was based on a photograph taken by Gordon Parks for Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man. The photograph shows a man coming out of a manhole in the middle of the street. In the novel, the protagonist is rendered invisible by society and people don’t see him for who he is. It’s an iconic novel with an African American protagonist written by an African American author, centered in and around New York, and the idea of Harlem is very important. So he took my face and kind of went with this theme.
Let’s say I have never listened to any kind of jazz. What is an essential jazz album that I should listen to if I’m discovering it for the first time?
One of the albums I really like listening to because of the amazing performances of the musicians, and for it’s cinematic and narrative qualities, is called Gnu High by Kenny Wheeler. It’s absolute music in a sense that there is no particular plot, but there is something about the writing that takes you on a journey. It’s a record that I return to from time to time because it really represents the possibilities with music. There are no limits- there are rules, but the imaginative limits can be let go.
What are you currently listening to?
I really love rap and hip hop because there is a lot of emphasis on the low end with really saturated bass, and you can’t do that without a synthesizer and electricity. There is a producer from Virginia that I like called DJ Harrison and I’ve been listening to an album he put out last year called IndieGiver. Up until you called, I was listening to The Flaming Lips.
What advice could you give to a young musician trying to navigate today’s music industry?
Know that your journey should be unique. Comparing yourself to your peers and folks in the business is good up to a very short limit, because in the creative fields, your path is truly your own. To compare yourself constantly takes away from that journey. The goal is to contribute something original, and that alone will make it new. No one has ever existed like you, and there never will be someone like you. So definitely limit comparison and really go for a contribution. That allows the work to be very genuine and honest, and powerful in a way that people respond to.
Definitely know how to use the internet! Know what it means to be on social media although you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing, but it’s fair to say that an online presence is really important. And yes, the music industry is changing constantly, but our world is changing too. I think having an eye on the rest of humanity, the world as we know it, the planet, the fate of all living creatures, and keeping that perspective front and center is important for any creative person because we are not creating in a vacuum and we’re all in this world together. It’s important to keep in mind that if you are going to contribute something, ask yourself what kind of world to you want to contribute to.